Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories Feature Preview

We sit down and wield some cards with the Disney posse in Square Enix's handheld continuation of the Kingdom Hearts story.

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Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories is the upcoming Game Boy Advance game that brings Square Enix's fledgling Kingdom Hearts franchise to Nintendo's portable hardware. The original game has plenty of ties to the 2002 PlayStation 2 game that first introduced the winning combination of Square's well-known characters and Disney's plethora of animated stars. In story terms, Chain of Memories actually serves as the bridge between the original Kingdom Hearts and its upcoming PS2 sequel, Kingdom Hearts 2. While we've had the opportunity to get a look at the English version of the game previously, we haven't had the chance to sit down and properly dig into it until now.

Chain of Memories sees Sora trapped in the creepily named Castle Oblivion while fighting for his very memories.

The action starts roughly where the original Kingdom Hearts left off, with main character Sora kickin' it with Donald Duck, Goofy, and Pluto after a satisfying triumph over evil. An impressive video clip--impressive by Game Boy Advance standards, that is--shows a shadowy figure contacting Sora and cryptically telling him that someone he holds dear is nearby. The plucky lad follows and soon finds an enormous castle. The action then shifts to the sprite-based game engine and shows the trio entering the castle. Initially, they all feel as though King Mickey is near, for no good reason other than a collective hunch, but they quickly discover that this is not the case. After a quick meeting of the minds with Jiminy Cricket, who happens to be traveling somewhere on Sora's person, they meet a mysterious black-robed figure.

In trying to attack the shadowy figure, the trio discovers that something is amiss when its magic doesn't work. The mysterious stranger explains that the moment they entered the castle, they forgot every spell and skill they knew. To escape the castle, invitingly named Castle Oblivion, Sora must journey through it to rediscover his memories. The journey is made more challenging by the fact that Donald and Goofy are turned into cards. The shadowy figure then creates a deck of cards from Sora's memories and explains that everything he'll encounter is built from these memories. Before bugging out, the robed figure thoughtfully offers a brief primer on the game's card system, and then he leaves Sora to his own devices.

Although Chain of Memories' story is a bit sinister for a game starring Disney characters, it provides a good setup for the unique gameplay system under the hood. The game is essentially one-third card game, one-third platformer, and one-third RPG. You'll explore the various rooms in Castle Oblivion in a loosely structured quest format. Each set of rooms in the castle is patterned after the major locales in the original Kingdom Hearts, and they feature some of the same friends and foes, as well as some surprises. The rooms are modestly sized areas that are populated by a smattering of enemies...not to mention the occasional crates that you can break open to uncover items, experience, or health power-ups.

Card-battling mechanics combine with classic action to give the game a unique feel.

The combat in Chain of Memories is a real-time variant of the standard card-battle system seen in many other games. You'll have a deck of cards that has different numerical values and breaks down into two basic categories. Cards tied to actions and items are in one category, while cards tied to enemies are in another. As you play the game, you'll earn more cards to flesh out your deck. Pressing the A button will perform a card's action in real time. When facing off against enemies, a card's numerical value comes into play and determines whose attack is successful. For example, cards have values of zero to nine, so when you face off against an enemy, whoever's card has the greater value will successfully land his attack. Once you start to have a bigger collection of cards, you'll be able to perform combos by stacking three cards together. The value of all three cards will combine as you attack, and this stack maneuver will result in a multihit combo.

In addition, as you explore rooms in the castle, cards will come into play in a very unique way. First off, you'll need to collect different combinations of cards to open different doors to new areas. Once you open a door and are about to head to a new room, you'll synthesize that room from the cards you've collected by combining them together. This will come to affect both the enemies and content of the room you enter, which keeps things interesting.

Layered on top of the card system is a fairly straightforward RPG system that lets you level up as you defeat enemies by earning experience. Once you earn a level, you'll be able to increase Sora's hit points, card points, or sleights (which are special moves you can perform by combining certain cards).

The graphics in the game are looking sharp and rank among some of the best we've seen on the GBA. Sora and the gang are brought to life via large, detailed sprites that animate well. Everyone from the Square and Disney stables is easily recognizable, and everyone has modest flourishes of animation to give him or her personality. You'll see everyone from Donald, Goofy, Jiminy, and Aladdin's genie to Leon, Yuffie, and even Aerith (as Square trots out its beloved martyr from FF7 yet one more time). The detail is further enhanced by the character portraits that appear during conversation sequences, which offer close-ups of the speakers and facial animation. The in-game graphics are bolstered by a number of effects, including brief full-motion-video washes that occur when you initiate combat. As we mentioned earlier, you actually find quite a bit of video peppered throughout the game. The quality is surprisingly good on the GBA, although it falls a bit short of the quality of the GBA video packs currently available. However, it's certainly impressive in its own right.

Plenty of cameos--some unexpected--will keep the nostalgia factor high throughout the game.

While it's tough to expect sound quality from the GBA that's comparable to the console version of Kingdom Hearts, Chain of Memories does the hardware proud. The music in the game is clear and about as robust as it gets on the GBA. As far as the tunes in the game go, plan on hearing quite a few familiar renditions of the various world themes, along with some new tracks composed specifically for this new adventure. The voice samples in the game are equally clear and help give the cast that extra bit of authenticity.

Based on what we played so far, Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories appears to be shaping up into a solid title. While the gameplay may turn off fans of the more traditional mechanics seen in the original Kingdom Hearts, there's still plenty of charm in the game thanks to the main cast of characters and the assortment of cameos in it. There's also a fair amount of variety to the game once you start to explore the card system, which is definitely interesting, even if it's not for everybody. Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories is set to ship in early December for the Game Boy Advance.

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